DuPage County jail inmates learn welding to better prepare for life on the outside
Ventrel Murphy has been in and out of the DuPage County jail since 2015.
He's currently being held on theft charges from 2018. He could post bail and go free. But he's not ready yet.
Murphy, 23, of Willowbrook, has found purpose as one of the first inmates to participate in the jail's new welding technology program.
Eight nonviolent offenders have been selected to participate in the six-week program, being taught in a trailer parked on the jail grounds, to earn their plate welding certification.
To qualify, inmates also must be enrolled in the jail's JUST program, which offers classes, addiction treatment and religious education.
"After they leave the program, hopefully we'll be able to get them interviews and we can get them started in a job. The industry is in need of welders like never before," said instructor Dan Caldwell, of First Institute Training and Management, a company that has been providing out-of-school workforce development since 2005. "They're all doing really well. I haven't seen anyone who isn't catching on. You're not going to be successful unless you practice a lot."
For Murphy, the program offers the prospect of a good-paying job and providing for his family. So he chooses to stay in jail until he completes the course.
"I'd rather finish this program in here and be able to go outside with something else under my belt to make my momma proud," he said during a recent class. "(Then) I can go to COD (College of DuPage) to take the next steps to be a better welder and make more money to take care of my family. I'm fighting for this chance."
Murphy says he already does carpentry work and flooring and can replace vanities and kitchen counters and sinks.
"Welding seemed like a perfect fit," he said. "I like working with my hands, so why not get involved?"
Lisa Schvach, executive director of WorkNet DuPage in Lisle, which funds the program through Department of Labor youth grants, said it's an ideal use for federal dollars.
"The money needs to go toward helping people between the ages of 17 and 24 who face financial hardships," she said. "Already being in jail, they're immediately eligible, so it's a really good fit."
And if DuPage Sheriff Jim Mendrick has his way and is able to convert the effort into a full-time diversionary program for all adult nonviolent offenders, Schvach said she could find money for that training as well.
Negotiations have begun for First Institute to set up a permanent training location in DuPage that could be used for both jail work skills training courses and a diversionary program to which first-time offenders could be sentenced.
"The First Institute travels around the state with this trailer. We would love for them to make a more permanent home here in DuPage," she said.
Mendrick said he hopes the inmates' participation will help them the next time they go before a judge.
"Any time a judge assesses someone's sentence, they're looking at, do they want to succeed?" he said. "If they look at a person in a job program working to make a meaningful attempt to better themselves, why would you sentence hard on someone who is legitimately trying?"
Javier Sanchez Santos, 24, of West Chicago has been in and out of jail on drug charges and said he joined the program looking for motivation to get out of jail and stay out.
"Coming to this program makes me look forward toward the day because we're going to learn something new and it's interesting," he said. "Every day I try to do better than yesterday."
Mendrick said he's proud to see what inmates are accomplishing.
"This isn't a punishment. This is an opportunity for them," he said. "What we're selling here is a second chance. These guys are getting a chance to repurpose their lives and get a good-paying job.
"Our new motto in the jail is 'Hope and Purpose.' If we give people hope and purpose, they're going to be successful."
JUST Director Michael Beary said adding the job skills component to the program was exactly the boost it and the inmates needed.
"In their heads, all they can get is a McDonald's job, and it just leads to more hopelessness and despair," Beary said. "And hopelessness and despair leads them right back to selling drugs to feed their kids. It's a vicious cycle."
Chief Anthony Romanelli, who oversees the jail, said inmates also are working in a janitorial services program and those who prepare the meals soon will be certified.
Mendrick said the new programs are part of an effort to rid the sheriff's office of the "just lock 'em up philosophy."
"This is the birth of a much bigger project to get people out of jail and stabilized in the community," he said. "This is the beginning."